Rebecca Dresser, the Daniel Noyes Kirby Professor of Law Emerita at Washington University in St. Louis, is a renowned expert in biomedical ethics.
Since 1983, Professor Dresser has taught medical and law students about legal and ethical issues in end-of-life care, biomedical research, genetics, assisted reproduction and related topics. She has written extensively in her field and is author or co-author of five books.
She has written extensively in her field and is author or co-author of five books.
Professor Dresser earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in 1973 and a master’s degree in education in 1975, both from Indiana University. She earned a JD from Harvard Law School in 1979.
Following a law clerkship and a fellowship at the University of Chicago, she joined Baylor College of Medicine in 1983 as assistant professor at the Center for Ethics, Medicine and Public Issues.
After teaching at Case Western Reserve University and working at Harvard University as a fellowship recipient, she joined Washington University with a joint appointment as a professor of law in the School of Law and a professor of ethics in the School of Medicine in 1998.
In 2003, Professor Dresser was a visiting research scholar at the University of Tokyo, where she taught a short course in law and bioethics.
Professor Dresser’s understanding of the ethics involved in medical treatment was driven at least in part by her own struggle with cancer.
In 2006, she received a cancer diagnosis.
“Patients with serious illnesses are often invited to participate in clinical trials. After being diagnosed with advanced cancer, I became one of those patients,” she told an audience at the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice in 2017.
“I had to choose between two options: a treatment regimen my doctors had recommended, or a trial evaluating different treatments for my disease. As someone who had taught and written about research ethics and a longtime member of an institutional review board, I was in some ways better prepared than many patients are to make this choice. And I knew about the important health benefits that come from research, as well as the arguments that patients have a duty to participate in research. Nevertheless, I decided not to enroll in the trial. Was this a defensible choice, or did I have a responsibility to contribute to a study that could help future patients in my situation?
“I realized there are things you learn about clinical trials and research ethics that you can’t see when you are just reading about it,” Professor Dresser said in a 2020 interview with Cancer Today magazine. “After my treatment, I started reading everything, from personal accounts to empirical studies, to learn more about the people who have been in research studies and their experiences.”
Her process with cancer informed her 2012 book Malignant: Medical Ethicists Confront Cancer. The collection of essays, edited by Professor Dresser, includes the perspectives of six other medical ethicists who wrote about personal experiences with cancer.
In 2017, she published Silent Partners: Human Subjects and Research Ethics, a book that explores the absence of the patient voice in the development of clinical trials.
Her other books are The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice (1998, second edition 2008); Bioethics and Law: Cases, Materials and Problems, second edition (2003); and When Science Offers Salvation: Patient Advocacy and Research Ethics (2001).
Professor Dresser has written commissioned papers for the National Academy of Sciences and National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
From 2002–09, she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and, from 2011 to 2015, she was a member of the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.
She also is past chair of the Hastings Center Fellows Council and one of the “At Law” columnists for the Hastings Center Report.
She was a member of the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine from 1997–2002.
She was awarded the 2014 Washington University Distinguished Faculty Award; the 2014 Women’s Justice Award from Missouri Lawyers Weekly; and has been a Hastings Center Fellow and a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Lambda Delta.